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Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9

I’ll never eat a shrimp cocktail again. Well, okay, I might if I’m in Las Vegas and they are jumbo shrimp and comped by a casino, but only if they are smothered in cocktail sauce and I’ve been sauced in cocktails long enough first to forget about the sight burned into my eyes this week when I went to the Essex Cinemas and saw the (relatively) low-budget ($30 million) creature-feature District 9.

In case you have been living under a rock to stay out of the heat these past few days and aren’t in the know, District 9 is a story about a bunch of extraterrestrials who have the poor happenstance to end up stranded in the sky over Johannesburg, South Africa when their spacecraft literally runs out of gas and is left hovering over the city sometime in the 1980s. The inhabitants, who resemble something you may have gotten to know if you were summering under that rock out back are found by human investigators sick and starving within their massive ship and are rescued, and first treated compassionately as refugees in need of humanitarian aid, but before long, as you can expect from our species, which is always in need of someone to kick around, they become in humanity’s eyes a new “race” to discriminate against and so quickly enough even the Nigerians who were the victims of South Africa’s apartheid join with the white ruling class to turn on the visitors and treat them as savages that need to be controlled. The aliens, derisively called “Prawns” by the humans, are regularly bullied, beaten and killed, and by 2010, the “present” of District 9, they have all been rounded up and forced to live in the well-guarded and fenced-in slums on the outskirts of the metropolis’ landfill area known as District 9. Here, the Prawns scavenge to live off of the humans’ garbage and clamor to eat cat food as “rewards” from the human government for remaining docile and subservient in the face of brutal treatment and subpar living standards.

The film is not your usual drive-in monster flick. If you’re a teenager expecting to get a little something-something in the back row like at a Grade Z knock-off of Creature From the Black Lagoon you are going to be sadly disappointed because District 9 will more likely than not be full of adults looking to see the movie from a more mature viewpoint. Clearly director (and co-writer, with first time writer Terri Tatchell) Neill Blomkamp (Tempbot), a Johannesburg native himself, intended the film to capture the flavor of his city’s tumultuous and still barely struggling under the surface attempts to keep racial tensions at bay. By using the Prawns as metaphors for the black majority who suffered most under apartheid Blomkamp is able to successfully show the repulsiveness and ridiculousness of the evident discrimination in a way that is so obvious even the blindest of bigots can’t help but see it. Signs demanding “Humans Only” at water fountains or bus stops with big red slashes through the figures of an insect is not hard to understand. In other words, this is a “thinking man’s sci fi film” so don’t expect a lot of big time explosions or fancy Star Wars’ battles throughout the galaxy. The action here is as cerebral as physical, though there is a great human storyline integral to the Prawns’ plight.

Writer and director of Spoon, Sharlto Copley makes an impressive acting debut as Wikus Van
De Merwe, a less-than-stellar mid-level bureaucrat at Multi-National United (MNU), the private company contracted to oversee the “alien situation.” Wikus is the son-in-law of the company’s owner, a nefarious Dick Cheney-like scumbag less interested in helping the aliens adapt to life on Earth than he is finding a way to usurp their advanced weaponry and technology, none of which can be activated by humans since it only starts by integration with the aliens’ own DNA. What Wikus doesn’t know is that his new assignment, to convince the individual families of aliens to sign agreements to allow themselves to be legally evicted and sent to new living quarters in far off District 10 is not the pretty picture it seems. District 10 is not an improvement over the slums of District 9. It’s basically a concentration camp in the desert.

Wikus barely begins his work before he accidently becomes infected with alien DNA and in a cue from The Fly he begins to slowly morph into one of the Prawns himself, which makes him a feared entity on the streets of his hometown, a cherished prize for MNU’s experiments on DNA and weaponry, and a questionable matter of loyalties within
District 9 where its residents don’t know whether to trust him, kill him, or outright eat him.

Told in documentary style and with faux “expert” testimony from sociologists, historians, and Wikus’ own family members on hand to offer their insights, coupled with a variety of film stocks and sometimes abrupt editing styles, Blomkamp creates a cinema verité feel that sucks the viewer in and what begins as a seemingly dull “60 Minutes” type of presentation quickly becomes a heart-tugging “You Are There” adventure that will have your sympathies bounding to places you’d never expect. In that regard, it took me back to a little-remembered Dennis Quaid and Lou Gossett, Jr. movie called Enemy Mine from 1985.

District 9 works so well because despite its clear messages it doesn’t deliver them with a sledgehammer nor does it forget that it is first and foremost a bit of science fiction meant to entertain. With a gaggle of producers including Lord of the Rings' giant Peter Jackson behind the scenes, Blomkamp had access to the best animators around to bring his Prawns to life (they are amazing to behold and so completely believable you’ll never even think about the fact they don’t really exist until much later). The problem is, you probably will think about them the next time you sit down for a seafood dinner and have (until then) forgotten all about the movie, and then the waiter will present you with a plate full of those sad little Prawns and all you’ll want to do is burst into tears and find a way to send them back home. Savor them instead, and savor District 9. It is a delicious and mind-blowing bit of filmmaking at its best.

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